Capturing Berenice Abbott: New exhibition and book showcases the varied career of a great photographer

Berenice Abbott by Hank O'Neal in New York City, 18 November 1979

Berenice Abbott by Hank O'Neal in New York City, 18 November 1979

Last week saw the opening of a comprehensive new Berenice Abbott exhibition at Jeu de Paume, Paris. ‘Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs’ reveals the astonishing range of the iconic photographer’s artistic, documentary and scientific works. Here we take a look at this exhibition and the beautiful accompanying catalogue published by Editions Hazan.

The American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is known best for her documentation of New York in the 1930s. In a country shaken by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, her images of 30s New York captured an urban landscape in the throes of dramatic change. Abbott is also known for her efforts to champion the work of French photographer Eugène Atget in both Europe and the United States.

Despite the importance of these achievements, her career as a whole is rarely documented, and her body of work is often reduced to a handful of familiar images. ‘Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs’ at the Jeu de Paume in Paris aims to rectify that, covering every stage of Abbott’s career. An active participant in the avant-garde circles in the 1920s and a determined opponent of Pictorialism and the school of Alfred Stieglitz, Abbott spent her varied career exploring the notions of documentary photography and photographic realism in a number of different ways. Featuring over 120 vintage prints as well as a series of documents never previously shown, this exhibition conveys the breadth of a career that includes portraiture, urban landscapes, detailed architectural studies and innovating scientific photography.

Portraits

Jean Cocteau avec un revolver, 1926, Berenice Abbott

Jean Cocteau avec un revolver, 1926, Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott left the United States in 1921 to study sculpture in Paris, where she was hired by Man Ray in 1923 to be his assistant. She took to photography immediately and by 1926 had set up her own studio, where she began a successful career as a portrait photographer, capturing bohemian life in the city. Mixing amongst the artistic and intellectual circles of the day, she photographed the cosmopolitan likes of Eugène Atget, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Sylvia Beach, André Gide, Foujita, Max Ernst and Marie Laurencin.

Capturing America

In 1929 she returned to the United States and set up a new studio, where she produced her best-known and most influential work, ‘Changing New York’  (1935-1939). This project represented both a vast exercise in recording the architecture and urban life of New York and an intensely personal artistic project.  This undertaking was Abbott’s own initiative but was financed by the Works Progress Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to combat the Great Depression. Conceived as both a record of the city and a work of art in its own right, this ambitious government commission focused on the contrast between the old and the new in the rapidly changing city. The exhibition at the Jeu de Paume features a substantial selection of images from ‘Changing New York’.

Pike and Henry Street, New York City, March the 6th, 1936.

Pike and Henry Street, New York City, March the 6th, 1936.

The exhibition also presents a never previously exhibited selection of the photographs Abbott took in 1954 when travelling along the US East Coast on Route 1. These reflect her ambition to represent the whole of what she called the “American scene.”

Scientific photography

Abbott’s style of straight photography helped her make important contributions to scientific photography. In the 1950s, Abbott produced a set of photographs illustrating the principles of mechanics and optics for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Combining aesthetic and educational concerns, these abstract, experimental images echoed her photograms of the 1920s.

Motif d’interférence, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Motif d’interférence, Cambridge, Massachusetts

About the exhibition catalogue

Berenice Abbott exhibition catalogue

Berenice Abbott exhibition catalogue

Editions Hazan‘s attractive exhibition catalogue by Gaelle Morel (Curator at the Ryerson Gallery and Research Centre, Toronto) features 120 photographs and a series of rarely seen documents (including letters, book layouts, and periodicals). Like the exhibition, this beautifully produced catalogue illuminates the three major periods of Abbott’s career (see above).

By detailing Abbott’s influences and production both home and abroad, Berenice Abbott underscores the photographer’s role as one of the 20th century’s most remarkable artists.

Berenice Abbott by Gaelle Morel is available now from Yale University Press.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs at Jeu de Paume, Paris runs from 20 February until 29 April 2012.

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